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Defending GodBiblical Responses to the Problem of Evil$

James L. Crenshaw

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9780195140026

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: July 2005

DOI: 10.1093/0195140028.001.0001

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Limited Power and Knowledge

Limited Power and Knowledge

Accentuating Human Freedom

(p.75) 4 Limited Power and Knowledge
Defending God

James L. Crenshaw

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The deity’s role in human affairs need not be determinative, for people are not automatons. To endow them with the dignity of self-expression, God is said to impose limits on his own power and knowledge. The onerous consequences of freedom gave birth to an axiom that the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel tried to defuse: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are sensitive.” Freedom implies the possibility of saying “no” to God, a rejection that contributed to divine pathos. The depth of God’s suffering is beautifully documented by Hosea and Third Isaiah.

Keywords:   automaton, dignity, self-expression, limits, power, knowledge, freedom, axiom, pathos, prophets

One man's justice is another man's injustice.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson

Like their neighbors in Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia, the early Israelites believed that supreme power resided with the deity. As creator of everything that was, YHWH controlled the universe in every detail, from the rising of the sun to the nocturnal prowling of the lion and everything in between. Rains came, and harvest, at the creator's bidding, as did famine and pestilence. Nothing took place under the sun that was remotely contrary to the divine will. Even social and political events were thought to be dictated by the deity, so firm was the ancients' belief in divine sovereignty. This heightened sense of God's power left minimal responsibility to humans, turning individuals into mere puppets manipulated by divine hands.1

Such is the impression conveyed by many ancient texts. Nevertheless, the literature also implies that men and women make free choices that shape their character and determine the consequences of their actions.2 The story of the first couple in the garden emphasizes human culpability for making the wrong choice, and YHWH's warning to the first murderer emphasizes the primacy of human choice. Adam and Eve were fully responsible for their decision to eat from the tree, and Cain was fully capable of mastering his murderous anger. Vulnerable though they were, each freely chose a course of action in defiance of the creator—which the deity, in turn, chose (p.76) not to overrule. The very concept of Torah, pervasive in the Bible, implies the freedom to obey or not to obey, unconstrained by divine intervention. Furthermore, once a decision is made, human experience takes one road to the exclusion of others. Until that choice is final, God cannot know the course of an individual's life. Free will requires an open future that would be a sham if God were prescient. It follows that the deity lacks complete knowledge.

Like the qualities of justice and mercy, divine sovereignty and human freedom clash with one another. Their irreconcilability leaves an indelible mark on biblical literature, which bears deep and conflicting imprints of both. In an effort to preserve an illusion of control in the heavens—in short, to address the problem of theodicy—certain biblical writers stress the distinction between the potential and the actual with respect to the deity. While YHWH possesses full potentiality for absolute power and knowledge, the deity chooses in actuality to limit those qualities so that he might endow human beings with self-determination.3 In this chapter I consider this approach to theodicy in the writings of the biblical prophets.

Human Freedom

Within the biblical canon, the Former Prophets constitute a monumental theodicy, an almost heroic attempt to exonerate the deity from permitting the defeat of Jerusalem and the exportation of a large number of Judeans to Babylonia. In the view of the authors of the Deuteronomistic History,4 this core event resulted from repeated acts of disloyalty on the part of a covenanted people, not from inherent weakness on the part of YHWH.5 The rebellious conduct is described as nothing less than a cycle of sin, punishment, repentance, and deliverance. The cumulative effect of such human willfulness brought on a final calamity, the unthinkable razing of the cultic site believed to be the residence of the deity YHWH.6 The fault, insofar as one can assess blame in matters of this kind, did not lie with the deity but rested on human shoulders as the direct result of human freedom.7

Historical events, however, never as simple as biblical literature implies, frequently took perplexing turns that defied systematization.8 The Deuteronomistic understanding of strict reward and retribution activated by human choice was difficult to reconcile with the real-life experience of YHWH's people. Josiah's early death must have rendered speechless all who thought they had discovered a definitive historiography grounded in religious conviction.9 In the stark light of historical reality, how could the tradition be kept intact?

(p.77) Corporate Freedom

One strategy for preserving the traditional beliefs was simply to exclude all evidence to the contrary. This approach occurs in Zeph 3:1–5, which declares unmitigated corporate guilt and denies any possibility of divine injustice:

Ah, soiled, polluted, oppressing city!

She has obeyed no one,

received no instruction.

She has not trusted in YHWH,

nor drawn near to her God.

Her officials within are roaring lions;

her judges are evening wolves

that have reserved nothing until the morning.

Her prophets are wanton, treacherous individuals;

her priests have profaned the sacred,

they have done violence to the law.

YHWH in her midst is righteous [tsaddiq];

he does no injustice ['awlah].

Every morning he pronounces judgment,

each dawn without fail,

but the unjust ['awwal] knows no shame.

The wanton exercise of human freedom has set Jerusalem's course. A righteous deity—present in her midst, despite her faithlessness—administers the judgment that she brings upon herself.

For Zephaniah, the holy city's corruption contrasts with the deity's perfection. Human leaders, without exception, are judged to be guilty—officials, judges, prophets, and priests. The usual deterrent to ravenous conduct, a desire to avoid the slightest hint of shame, has lost its power, leaving them utterly bereft of honor. Over against this perfidy stands a divine incapacity to do wrong, at least in the view of the prophet. Others may berate YHWH for failing to execute judgment in a timely manner, but Zephaniah detects no such dereliction of duty.10

Zephaniah's exuberant confidence in YHWH's justice matches that exemplified in Psalm 92, which envisions a just society in which God unfailingly rewards the righteous and ultimately crushes the wicked. The psalmist acknowledges the mystery of momentary success on the part of evildoers but attributes its inexplicability to a combination of factors, primarily human laziness and divine profundity (Ps 92:6–7). In this deity who causes the righteous to flourish like a well-watered palm, the psalmist can detect no sign of injustice.

(p.78) The gloss that concludes the book of Hosea also rules out the existence of divine injustice:

Those who are wise understand these things;

those who are discerning know them.

For the ways of YHWH are right [yesharim],

and the upright [tsaddiqim] walk in them,

but transgressors stumble on them. (Hos 14:10)

The difference between this affirmation and Zephaniah's is noteworthy. Whereas Zephaniah characterizes YHWH as not guilty—indeed, incapable of doing wrong—the gloss in Hosea refers to divine activity rather than the deity's nature, using the adjective yesharim, a word that indicates straight dealings, and reserving tsaddiqim (not guilty, righteous) for obedient people.

Individual Freedom

The principle of self-determination, the ability to shape one's own destiny for good or ill, was applied originally to all of Israel, the corporate entity. Choices carried consequences for the entire covenantal community, understood to extend both geographically and across time.11 This conception of Israel enabled religious leaders to reckon with individual miscarriages of justice, which were dismissed as inevitable anomalies within the community. As long as the larger group remained healthy, these minor injustices were bearable. Once the corporate entity was threatened, however, such individual aberrances required a better explanation. The necessity for serious reflection on this issue was impressed upon the sixth-century prophet Ezekiel by a popular saying that stated the problem succinctly: “Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and children's teeth have become sensitive” (Ezek 18:2).

On a literal level, this proverb, which was circulating among Jews in Babylon (and also in Judah, if its presence in the book of Jeremiah is not an editorial gloss),12 made no sense. Everyone knew that only the person who ate the grapes would taste their bitterness. In the improbable scenario of the proverb, the unpleasant consequences of foolish behavior extended across generations, with children suffering for what their parents had done. An impossibility in the natural world became the logic of a deep rift in corporate solidarity, the rebellion of youth against their progenitors. Alternatively, the popular saying revealed a situation of lethargy, where young people were throwing up their hands in despair over a hopeless fate brought upon them by the older generation. In either case, the point of the proverb was a protest against the unfairness of having to suffer the consequences of the actions of others.13

(p.79) The exact origin of this proverb is not known,14 for like all such popular expressions, it can be applied to multiple contexts.15 Its application to the period immediately following the fall of Jerusalem and deportation of a large portion of the population can scarcely be denied, for in war the decisions of a few in authority embroil the entire citizenry. Foolish decisions to engage in conflict bring suffering and death to countless innocents who are powerless to prevent the bloodletting. In the case of Judah, the calculated move of the ruler and his administrative personnel to resist Babylonian hegemony brought disastrous consequences upon all the people.

In the book of Ezekiel, the suffering exiles quote the proverb about the debilitating effect of foolish decisions on innocent bystanders—even on persons not present or not yet conceived—to register their complaint. A developing sense of ego has given rise to the notion of individual rights irrespective of the larger entity. Lacking any hope of survival beyond death, save a weak, shadowy existence in Sheol, the exiles protest that they have gotten a raw deal: divine justice, they assert, does not exist except in the imaginations of religious leaders. Ezekiel's response is clear and strong. The prophet affirms God's justice even in the face of the exiles' desperate situation. The divine ways are just, he insists, and the people's ways are unjust. The language of his argument resembles priestly pronouncements of innocence and guilt in the Torah, but without the authority associated with rulings by priests in ancient Israel. As a prophetic mediator of the divine word, Ezekiel can only excoriate the defiant populace, leaving all punishment to heaven.16

The resulting exercise in casuistry may strike modern readers as peculiar, for it intermingles cultic and ethical norms as if they were equal.17 Indeed, in the view of priestly authors, they are: both represent divine statutes, and therefore both must be scrupulously obeyed. Breaking the prohibition against adultery is no more wrong than having sexual relations with a wife during her menstrual flow. Participation in worship of an unapproved cult center is just as heinous as murder, for YHWH has prohibited both.

The world that Ezekiel envisions corresponds to Oscar Wilde's definition of fiction: “so-called moral universes in which evil is necessarily punishment, in which, therefore, the good are blessed and the wicked chastised.” Such a fictional world has never existed, despite the prophet's insistence that a rational rule assures the appropriate reward or punishment for human action. Sensing the difficulty of his worldview, Ezekiel presses further and further in the direction of divine solicitude, all the while resolutely adhering to the notion that YHWH rewards and punishes with exact justice.

Ezekiel's observations in chapter 18, wordy in the extreme, reach three peaks of insight before culminating in a dramatic announcement of a new (p.80) heart and a new spirit. The first peak concerns the issue of just punishment; the next two relate to the character of God and make an appeal to the defiant rebels who have subscribed to the sentiment expressed in the proverb about parents and children.18 The initial insight, found in vv 4 and 20, takes dogmatic form, like the related articulation of the idea in Deut 24:16: “The one who sins, he will die.” To reinforce the point, Ezekiel insists that there is no transfer of guilt or innocence from one person to another, neither from son to father nor from father to son. The innocent will remain above reproach, he maintains, and the guilty will bear his own guilt. The second insight comes in v 23 and takes interrogative form: “Do I really take pleasure in the death of the wicked, says YHWH, and not in his turning from his ways and living?” Finally, lest there be any doubt, v 32 declares and then invites in the name of YHWH: “For I take no pleasure in the death of the dead, says YHWH; so turn and live.” This combination of declaration and invitation works to emphasize divine compassion. The door stands ajar, even for the wicked, who need only repent and enter.

In short, the three insights into YHWH's innermost desires and their significance for humankind address the mistaken assumption that the prior deeds of others have sealed everyone's fate. Not so, Ezekiel reasons, for divine compassion awaits anyone who turns from sin and practices righteousness. In the eyes of the prophet, YHWH's justice is certain, and so is divine compassion.

How does Ezekiel support his claim? He sets out three hypothetical cases that involve three successive generations: a father, his son, and his grandson (Ezek 18:5–18). The father conducts himself according to YHWH's teachings and earns a favorable judgment. This man, Ezekiel insists, will live. That cannot be said for the man's wicked son, who earns a guilty verdict and will die. That man's son, however, leads a virtuous life rather than following in his father's footsteps. The grandson will live, according to the prophet's reasoning. The three examples thus refute the claim expressed in the proverb: “Fathers have eaten sour grapes, and children's teeth have become sensitive.”

The rather limited catalogue of sins in this passage moves quickly from offenses against the deity to violations of human relationships. Following the pattern of the Decalogue, the list first takes up acts directed against the deity—in this instance, sharing a meal on the mountains, presumably to a deity other than YHWH, and harboring reverence for an idol. Adultery is mentioned next, followed by another sexual offense involving a woman during her menstrual period. These sins fall into the category of secret breaches of the divine will, for both acts would be carried out in private. The list concludes with crimes (p.81) against the weak: oppressing a debtor by retaining a pledge, robbing, lending at interest, usury, and doing abominable things.

These sins are particularly relevant to the exilic period.19 In Judah, the collapse of the official cult in Jerusalem created a void insofar as worship was concerned. Rival cults sprang up, and those forced underground during the Josianic reform in 621 probably experienced a resurgence once the administration in Jerusalem became ineffective. After the fall of Jerusalem, the poor had no champion at a royal court. The situation was ripe for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the vulnerable20—lending at outrageous rates,21 holding pledged garments until the debt was fully repaid, hoarding possessions rather than sharing them with the needy. The prophet Amos complained about the same abuses in the eighth century, when a powerful king sat on the throne in Samaria. Clearly, the royal ideology of ruler as champion of the poor was not always a guarantee that oppressors would be brought to justice. In Babylonia, where Ezekiel carried out his prophetic vocation, the absence of an authoritative figure among the exiled Jews left the poor exposed more than ever to ruthless predators. Their vulnerability may explain Ezekiel's choice of offenses directed against humans,22 and the diversity of Babylonian religious worship would certainly account for his choice of sins directed against YHWH.23

Ezekiel's rhetorical strategy extends beyond the citation of a popular proverb and illustrative anecdotes. Twice he imagines a reactive audience,24 one that objects to his line of reasoning. In vv 19 and 25 he lets the people speak: “Yet you say, `Why shouldn't the son bear his father's guilt?'” and “Yet you say, `YHWH's way is unfair.'” The first objection makes no sense in the mouths of those to whom transferred guilt is wholly unacceptable. Why would they want to defend the idea that children ought to pay for what their parents have done? But the second objection is entirely legitimate, for, indeed, something other than justice is at work here.

The matter is perfectly clear. A wicked person amends his ways and begins to practice good deeds, for which he receives divine favor. All his former misdeeds are forgotten. Conversely, a righteous person falls into sinful practices, and YHWH forgets his previous life of virtue. The repentant sinner lives, and the errant righteous person dies. The verb used in expressing the people's objection indicates a departure from a standard of measurement. The exiles' concept of fairness would seem to demand something similar to Egyptian views of judgment at the time of death, when all one's deeds are weighed against the standard of pure justice.25 By way of contrast, Ezekiel envisions a divine decision before death that takes into consideration only present deeds. (p.82) An individual may have done abominable things all his life until just prior to the moment of judgment, when the equivalent of a deathbed conversion entitles him to live.26

To counter the objection that YHWH's ways are unfair, the prophet contrasts divine readiness to grant the repentant sinner life with the Israelites' sinful ways. He mentions no specifics but merely turns their words around: “The house of Israel says, `The way of YHWH is unfair.' Are not my ways fair, house of Israel? Are not your ways unfair?” Ezekiel makes one final appeal, urging the hearers to turn from their wicked ways lest they stumble. In the process of turning, he says, in the process of discarding all rebellious acts, they will begin to effect a mental transformation, forming within themselves a new heart and a new spirit. Their futures are in their own hands. With this mighty crescendo, the argument comes to a close.

Ezekiel is wholly convinced that the divine judge will render a just verdict based on an individual's present behavior—that is, on an individual's free choice. The sordid history of failure that has resulted in the exile, according to the standard biblical narrative, does not condemn the present generation. On the contrary, God's very nature as merciful offers a strong incentive to reform. All who respond to this open invitation can count on survival; all who reject it can count on death.

Divine Vulnerability

In choosing to endow humans with self-determination, the deity has relinquished full exercise of power and knowledge: human freedom entails divine constraint. Moreover, by entering into covenant relationship with particular human beings, he has made himself vulnerable, subject to the uncertainty of human choice. Vulnerability belongs to the essence of any intimate relationship, which must be grounded in mutual freedom. God's relationship with the creatures made in his own image bears the painful scars of this freely chosen vulnerability. As we saw in chapter 3, the poignant statement attributed to the deity at the conclusion of Abraham's horrible test—“Now I know that you fear God”—may be read as a telling display of God's vulnerability, a divine dependence on reciprocal love that cannot be ascertained unless submitted to radical choice.

YHWH's desire to love and be loved is evident in Isaiah 30, where the prophet denounces a rebellious people in YHWH's name, calling them a generation that has turned its back on the covenant in favor of alien gods. Deliverance was theirs for the asking:


For thus said Adonai YHWH,

the Holy One of Israel,

“In turning and rest you will be saved,

in calm and trust

will be your strength,”

but you refused. (Isa 30:15)

Despite the people's open defiance, YHWH longs for their return:

Truly YHWH is waiting to show compassion to you,

truly He will rise up to bestow mercy on you.

For YHWH is a God of justice;

happy are all who wait for him. (v 18)

The sound of weeping will move the deity to immediate action, coming out of temporary hiding to replace harsh discipline with direct leadership along treacherous paths. Then at last, the prophet promises, the people will turn against the “relics” of foreign gods and embrace YHWH wholeheartedly. Nature itself will reflect this state of mutual love, from rain at the opportune time of sowing seed to bountiful harvest. Even such a cornucopia pales, however, before the image with which the prophet closes this unit: “The light of the moon will be like that of the sun, and the sun's light will be seven times, like that of seven days, the day YHWH binds up the wounds of his people and heals the injuries he inflicted” (v 26). Weeping has been transformed into laughter, the result of reciprocated love.

The depth of divine vulnerability is also echoed in the final chapters of the anthology attributed to Isaiah:

I let myself be sought by those who did not inquire,

found by those who did not seek me.

I said, “Here I am, Here I am”

to a nation that did not invoke my name.

I spread out my hand all day to a stubborn people

who walk in the way that is not good,

after their own thoughts. (Isa 65:1–2)

While the nation continues to rebel, a minority of faithful servants elicits from YHWH a promise of new heavens and a new earth, with the sound of mirth ringing throughout Jerusalem:

I will exult in Jerusalem,

rejoice in my people;

never again will be heard in it


a sound of weeping

or a sound of distress. (65:19)

In this utopia, untimely death, the gravest issue of theodicy, will be no more. Infants will live out full lifetimes, far beyond the century mark. As for the rebels, YHWH's pronouncement is heavy with the language of choice:

Just as they have chosen their ways

and delight in their shameful deeds,

so I will choose their mockery,

and I will bring on them the thing they dread.

For I called and none answered,

I spoke and none paid heed.

They did evil in my eyes

and chose what I take no pleasure in. (66:3b–4)

The tone of intimacy then returns, this time in the imagery of maternal love:

You will be carried on shoulders

and rocked on knees

like a man whose mother comforts him;

thus I will comfort you,

and in Jerusalem you will be consoled. (66:12b–13)

In the book of Hosea, the theme of vulnerability to betrayal in an intimate relationship looms large. Here, YHWH is cast in the role of husband. The much-discussed narrative of a wife's infidelity and its painful consequences (Hosea 1–3), whether factual or symbolic, dramatizes both the deity's vulnerability and his all-too-human vindictive response, which prompts an alternative one, perhaps by a subsequent editor, that emphasizes YHWH's efforts at reconciliation:

Therefore I will woo her,

lead her in the wilderness,

and speak tenderly to her. (Hos 2:16)

This loving initiative will bring about a notable transformation, signaled by the manner of personal address:

You will call me 'Ishi [my husband];

no longer will you call me Ba'li [my master]. (2:18b)

The two conflicting responses to religious apostasy, viewed in the story as implying marital infidelity, permeate the rest of the book, with Hosea voicing (p.85) YHWH's divided reaction. “Compassion is hidden from my eyes” (13:14b) alternates with “How can I give you up, Ephraim, how can I abandon you, Israel?” (11:8a). Heightened emotion yields textual uncertainty, and the interpreters' struggle to grasp the sense of the Hebrew text matches the intensity of the original. So, too, does the knowledge that this people, so beloved of YHWH, was marched off to Assyria and into oblivion, despite the promised reconciliation.

Divine Order

In this context of the perils of intimacy associated with the exercise of free choice, human and divine, the prominence of images from the realm of nature is hardly accidental. After all, a definite rhythm is discernible in nature despite its idiosyncrasies. The sun does rise predictably, and darkness inevitably follows. Like the farmers implied in Isa 28:21–29, people whose livelihood depends on such regularity arrange their activities accordingly.

Isaiah's brief depiction here of agricultural practice in the ancient Judean hills is broadened at two significant junctures, each time pointing beyond the routine to make a theological statement. The first claim concerns the source of this knowledge about the optimum schedule for producing a desired harvest (“For they are taught accurately; their God instructs them,” v 26). The second removes all possibility of restricting such pedagogy to gods in general, identifying the earlier 'elohim with YHWH. This second claim is reinforced by a reiteration of the first (“This also issues from YHWH of Hosts”) and by the introduction of traditional epithets (“Counselor of wonder, greatly perceptive”). In short, the text uses a fixed reality, encountered daily, to defend a view of YHWH as both sagacious and powerful. This teacher, it asserts, does not apply an arbitrary standard but follows the rule of law (lammishpat), even when executing a strange deed (“to carry out a work—strange is his work—and to do a foreign deed—foreign is his deed,” v 21b). Against the unpredictability of human choice, the regularity of divine order stands firm.

Experience, of course, does not always bear that out. Nowhere within prophetic literature does a wounded spirit lash out at the natural order with the intensity of Fourth Ezra,27 but the prophets' sustained emphasis on human perversity paves the way for this trenchant critique of reality and its creator. The human propensity for evil throws into question the created order itself; indeed, it would have been better, Ezra argues, if God had never made mortals. Because they lack the will to reject sin, they become subject to a curse, thus producing a condemned humanity, a massa damnationis. This grim prospect (p.86) presents a monstrous challenge to the deity. Will mercy triumph over justice? That issue, recognized earlier by the prophet Hosea, is never fully resolved, neither by traditionists responsible for the book by that name nor by others who preserved prophetic literature from the southern kingdom. One fact is certain: Israel fell to Assyria, and Judah to Babylon. Is the other possibility any less real—that justice in fact prevailed?

The prophets may not have turned against the natural order of things as completely as the author of Fourth Ezra, but they did understand something about divine pathos, the deity's pain at human perversity. The freedom bestowed by the deity on human beings became the very means of their rebellion against all external control, turning the potential for growth into an instrument of destruction. Is there anything within the divine character that corresponds to the conflict within humans between good and evil, which the prophets saw with such clarity? We have already seen a suggestion of divine conflict in the book of Hosea. In the next chapter I take up this notion of tension within the deity between justice and mercy.


(1.) The classic statement regarding human puppets in YHWH's hands comes from Gerhard von Rad, “The Joseph Narrative and Ancient Wisdom,” in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (Edinburgh and London: Oliver & Boyd, 1966), 297. He writes: “God has all the threads firmly in his hands even when men are least aware of it. But this is a bare statement of fact, and the way in which God's will is related to human purposes remains a mystery. Thus the statements of what `you meant' and what `God meant' are in the last analysis irreconcilable.”

(2.) Biblical literature is not entirely consistent on this issue, as is attested by the various stories about YHWH hardening or turning the hearts of particular individu (p.218) als. Similar ambiguity has been detected in wisdom literature, which describes the consequences of actions as both automatic and activated by the deity. At some points the sages suggest that deeds carry within themselves the seeds of reward or punishment, while at other points they imply that direct divine action precipitates the ensuing events. It is likely, then, that ancient peoples, like modern ones, realized that actions are governed by numerous types of constraint. Actors possess freedom—of that the ancient writers were sure—but freedom is far from absolute.

(3.) Other writers are unwilling to abandon the notion of divine omniscience: “All is foreseen but freedom of choice is given; and the world is judged by goodness, yet all is according to the magnitude of the deed” (Pirke Aboth 3:16). In either conception, however, the outcome is the same: YHWH's power and knowledge will not displace human freedom.

(4.) The pervasive influence of a theological historiography shaped by the ideas of Deuteronomy has led modern critics to what has recently been dubbed pan-Deuteronomism, on which see L. S. Schearing and S. L. McKenzie, eds., Those Elusive Deuteronomists: The Phenomenon of Pan-Deuteronomism (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1999).

(5.) The slightest hint of weakness on YHWH's part continued to trouble Jewish writers during the period of Roman dominance. A fine example of sensitivity concerning this issue occurs in the Apocalypse of Baruch (early second century CE). Baruch has a vision in which angels come to a besieged Zion and take away for safekeeping the holy items, entrust them to the earth's care until the future restoration of the temple, demolish the wall that protects the city, and then tell the Babylonian soldiers that they can enter since the guard (YHWH) has left the house. The text goes on to proclaim that the conquerors have no reason to boast about their victory over Jerusalem (2 Baruch 6–7).

(6.) The lamentation over the destruction of Sumer and Ur gives voice to the pathos evoked by deities' abandonment of their temple and its environs to destruction; see J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969), 455–63. The book of Lamentations expresses similar dismay over YHWH's seeming lack of interest in Zion's fate.

(7.) This negative account of Israelite history was demanded by the events of 587, for few historiographers were willing to surrender belief in YHWH's trustworthiness. The only alternative was to place responsibility for Jerusalem's fall on willful humans. By this means YHWH's reputation was salvaged, but at what cost? The extent to which the Israelites' low self-esteem fed upon itself is difficult to assess. For modern minimalists, this entire depiction of Israelite history is literary fiction, a retrojection into the past of the major concerns during the exile. Maximalists are more sanguine about the actual continuity between preexilic and exilic understandings of reality.

(8.) Leo G. Perdue, The Collapse of History: Deconstructing Old Testament Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), and Robert Gnuse, Heilsgeschichte as a Model for Biblical Theology (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1989).

(9.) Stanley Brice Frost, “The Death of Josiah: A Conspiracy of Silence,” Journal of Biblical Literature 87 (1968): 369–82, expresses surprise over the biblical authors' fail (p.219) ure to address this shocking affront to the dominant understanding of divine solicitude. The difficulty posed by Josiah's death was magnified by the prophecy of a certain Huldah, who had announced that the king would go to his grave in peace (2 Kgs 22:18–20).

(10.) On this prophet, see Adele Berlin, Zephaniah (New York: Doubleday, 1994).

(11.) Debate continues to rage over the proper way to describe Israelite society, given the disparate phases in its emergence: (1) peasant revolt against authoritarian rule by Canaanite city-states; (2) peaceful acculturation with these same peoples; or (3) hostile takeover of the Judean hills at the end of an exodus from Egypt. Early village life under the leadership of a “family” head, with a tiny plot of land as a basic means of subsistence, differed appreciably from later kingdom life under the monarchs, who centralized power in Jerusalem and imposed heavy taxes. Contrast both forms of living with urban residence as a subject population in exile, and then imagine eking out a living in an impoverished postexilic Yehud under Persian control. The early family-based solidarity encountered frequent strain, both from central authority and from youth who were eager to take possession of their inheritance from aging patriarchs. In such circumstances, the original family structure gradually eroded, threatening the well-being of the weak.

(12.) Jeremiah 31:29. Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986), 607–9, treats the proverb as integral to the discussion of a future transformation of Israel. Lamentations 5:7 has virtually the same substance but lacks the aphoristic form: “Our parents sinned and no longer exist; we must bear their guilt.”

(13.) A rabbinic anecdote illustrates the integral nature of society and the destructive effect of one individual's conduct on the well-being of society at large. The story uses the figure of a boat and its passengers to symbolize the human community, a figure that early Christians also used to signify the church. On the boat a certain man busies himself with drilling a hole in the floor beneath him and, when confronted about his dangerous actions, maintains that he is only making a hole under himself. We may deceive ourselves into thinking that our deeds affect only ourselves, the story suggests, but ultimately our foolish behavior may place everyone around us at risk. In a sense, a society's penal code rests on the principle that hazardous conduct must be punished in order to protect the innocent.

(14.) The origin of ancient proverbs is the subject of much speculation. Many of them probably arose in the everyday circumstances of ordinary people, a point that Claus Westermann, Roots of Wisdom: The Oldest Proverbs of Israel and Other Peoples (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), has persuasively argued. More debatable are literary proverbs, sayings with an obvious artistic influence. Hans-Jürgen Hermisson, Studien zur israelitischen Spruchweisheit (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1968), contends that polished literary proverbs were composed by professional students. The existence of collections of proverbs in Egypt and Mesopotamia further complicates the matter, for we can be certain that schools existed in these two cultures. In assessing biblical sayings, however, it should be remembered that elegant language is not unknown among ordinary people. On ancient proverbs in unexpected places, see James L. Crenshaw, “A Proverb in the Mouth of a Fool,” forthcoming.


(15.) Accordingly, its performance differs with the setting, a point often made by Carole Rader Fontaine, Traditional Sayings in the Old Testament: A Contextual Study (Sheffield: Almond, 1982).

(16.) Ezekiel's discussion of this legal matter of guilt or innocence presupposes two courts, one on earth and one in heaven. The decision from above, however, is mediated by humans, which in a sense places the center of power below. The discussion's context often leaves matters obscure, and readers must guess who issues the verdict, from the perspective of the text.

(17.) Jon Levenson's impassioned defense of all Torah as equally binding grows out of a Judaism steeped in profound ritual; see Jon D. Levenson, “The Sources of Torah: Psalm 119 and the Modes of Revelation in Second Temple Judaism,” in Ancient Israelite Religion, ed. Patrick D. Miller, Paul D. Hanson, and S. Dean McBride (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 559–74. Scholars whose presuppositions are informed by Protestant suspicion of the cult are less inclined to view some prescriptions as eternal. Perhaps the growing appreciation for ritual among Protestants, coupled with the blossoming of Catholic biblical scholarship, will bring greater appreciation for those elements of Torah that have been downplayed in the last century of biblical criticism. One can hope that this new development will lessen the divide between Jewish and Christian interpreters.

(18.) To communicate these insights, Ezekiel employs three literary devices: dogmatic affirmation, rhetorical question, and a double imperative. No one has stressed more strongly the importance to this prophet of writing than Ellen F. Davis, Swallowing the Scroll: Textuality and the Dynamics of Discourse in Ezekiel's Prophecy (Sheffield: Almond, 1989). Davis's analysis has been challenged by Katheryn Pfisterer Darr, “Write or True: A Response to Ellen Francis Davis,” in Signs and Wonders: Biblical Texts in Literary Focus, ed. J. Cheryl Exum (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 239–47.

(19.) The Murashû documents from Nippur (fifth century) that have been thought to indicate a thriving Jewish presence in high finance within the exilic community can scarcely carry such weight. The majority of Judeans probably had to forge a meager existence through menial chores. Two factors may suggest that some transplanted Judeans prospered economically: first, the analogy with Egypt; second, the hesitation of some to return to Yehud when Cyrus made that possible. Still, the analogy with Alexandrian Jewry is inexact, for the migration to Egypt took place under far different circumstances, even if not wholly voluntary. See Matthew W. Stolper, “Murashû, Archive of,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. D. N. Freedman, 6 vols. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4:927–28.

(20.) In an agrarian economy a single bad year could imperil a family, and the potential causes of crop failure were many—drought, plague, infestation, fire, warfare. Children could be sold into slavery to erase debt, and the poor entered into whatever transactions were necessary for survival. As the economy became less and less rural, mercantile interests flourished and Yehud became a money-driven economy. The divide between the haves and have-nots widened, as the book of Ecclesiastes attests: “Again I observed all the oppressions that are done under the sun: the tears of (p.221) the oppressed with none to comfort them, and from the power of the oppressors, none to comfort them” (Eccl 4:1).

(21.) Estimates vary as to the extent of gouging, perhaps as high as 40 percent, but the system itself encouraged abuse, with the various levels in the hierarchy of tax collectors setting an example for greed.

(22.) This prophet's affinities with the earlier Hosea have often been noted. Hosea, too, focuses on the commandments relative to human relationships when citing from the Decalogue: “Because there is no integrity, kindness, and knowledge of God in the land, swearing, lying, murder, theft, and adultery break out, and bloodshed touches bloodshed” (Hos 4:1b–2). The antiquity of the Ten Commandments is hotly disputed, but they probably existed in some form as early as the late eighth century.

(23.) Compare Ezekiel's visionary description of proscribed religious practices in the temple at Jerusalem shortly before its destruction (Ezek 8:1–18). The reliability of this portrayal of syncretism in the cult at Jerusalem is contested, not least because Ezekiel's prophetic ministry took place in Babylonian exile. Modern interpreters largely discredit the psychic powers that would have been necessary to give authenticity to Ezekiel's account, even while emphasizing the scope of such syncretism. Fresh light on this prophet's theology comes from John F. Kutsko, Between Heaven and Earth: Divine Presence and Absence in the Book of Ezekiel (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2000).

(24.) The most striking example of a reactive audience is in the book of Malachi, where questions are posed by YHWH or his messenger and an audience responds to the charges. Such literature has rightly been called “discussion” or, better still, “contentious discussion.” On this development in Israelite literature, see Julia M. O'Brien, Priest and Levite in Malachi (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990) and Eileen M. Schuller, “The Book of Malachi,” New Interpreters Bible 7:841–77. Andrew E. Hill, Malachi (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 34–37, favors a didactic interpretation of the discussions, dubiously relating them to sapiential circles.

(25.) See the painting in Raymond O. Faulkner, The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 30–31.

(26.) Both the location and the timing of the judicial decree, whether for life or for death, are complicating factors in Ezekiel's argument. Neither the place nor the occasion has anything to do with existence beyond the grave. Lacking any enforcement of the priestly judgment “He shall die,” the words ring hollow. Ezekiel implies that YHWH will enforce the decisions granting life or imposing death, but things are not that simple. His further observations assume the deity's ownership of human beings, like that of a master with respect to his slaves, which conflicts with the stress on freedom of choice in the text.

(27.) Michael E. Stone, Fourth Ezra: A Commentary on the Book of Fourth Ezra (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990), writes: “The answers given by the angel, however, are rather conventional. God's workings are a mystery and beyond human comprehension; God loves Israel and will vindicate Israel in the end; God rejoices over the few saved and is not concerned over the many damned; God's mercy works in this world, while his justice is fully active only in the world to come” (36).